KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's opposition has privately threatened to turn February elections violent and it may now be too late for President Yoweri Museveni to stop it, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.
Failure to stage a credible, peaceful vote in the East African state could trigger regional instability, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, wrote in an October 2009 dispatch obtained by the WikiLeaks website.
Museveni, in power since 1986 and criticised for perceived authoritarianism, is expected by analysts to win the vote. His party says he will do so thanks to a strong development record but the opposition says the vote will be rigged.
"Even if the President begins now to make good faith efforts to hold free and fair elections, he still may be unable to prevent serious, even stability-threatening violence around the 2011 election,"
"The opposition is privately threatening violence and it is difficult to discern what the President could do now that would satisfy the political desires of so many who have been excluded from politics for so long."
Uganda is an important U.S. ally in East Africa. Its troops make up the brunt of an African Union force protecting the weak Somali government from Islamist militants.
The vote pits Museveni against his closest rival, Kizza Besigye, in their third election face-off. Besigye was Museveni's doctor in the bush when he was a rebel leader and now heads a four-party Inter-Party Cooperation coalition.
Museveni, one of Africa's longest serving leaders and a former cattle herder and student activist, has shepherded Uganda's economy through a period of expansion and the discovery of oil has boosted foreign investor interest.
But popular support has weakened at home over the last decade and relations with the West have frayed over moves -- including scrapping terms limits for presidents -- that critics say signal the 66-year-old wants to be president-for-life.
Lanier said in the cable that Museveni, head of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, was now "eroding Uganda's status as an African success story", citing autocratic tendencies and pervasive corruption.
"Holding a credible and peaceful presidential election in February 2011 could restore Uganda's image, while failing in that task could lead to domestic political violence and regional instability," the ambassador wrote.
The opposition were also criticised as "fractured and politically immature ... It is by no means clear the opposition would improve governance in Uganda in any way," the cable said.
The late-2009 cable said Museveni should tackle the perceived partisanship of the Electoral Commission and initiate electoral reforms to hold credible elections. Opposition parties still contend that this has not happened.